Shoes – Elektrafied The Elektra Years 1979 – 1982
Released 27 March 2020
Boxset taking in the three albums Shoes recorded for Elektra Records, plus their demo equivalents and an extra disc of rarities…..LTW’s Ian Canty hears a quietly uncompromising band determined to take their vision to the majors….
This new set from Shoes slots neatly alongside 2018’s Black Vinyl Shoes set (reviewed here), which documented their earlier adventures. So we pick up things in the first months of 1979, where we find the band demoing some new tracks after becoming increasingly frustrated that things weren’t happening for them fast. Soon that was to change as the slow-burning success of Black Vinyl Shoes finally alerted large record companies to their potential.
Elektra Records reacted quickest, beating a last ditch attempt by Capitol to sign the band in spring of the same year. BVS was by this stage almost two years old, but the current environment seemed to be purpose made for them. Soon the Knack would rocket up the charts in the US with My Sharona and briefly power pop would became a phrase heard in American households. The Shoes line-up of Gary Klebe, Jeff and John Murphy and Skip Meyer were an entirely different proposition of course, but there were some surface similarities which showed a thirst for something new at least existed in the States.
Elektra for their part wanted the band to be put with a producer that would bring out the best in them. A host of well-known names including Craig Leon and Martin Rushent (now that I would have like to have heard) were considered, before the band opted for Mike Stone. Not to be confused with the Clay Records boss of the same name, this Mike Stone had worked with the Beatles as an engineer and more extensively with Queen in the same role. They flew to the Manor studio in the UK to record just after PIL had finished the Metal Box LP there. It would be fair to say that Shoes didn’t quite find a like mind in Stone, who was underwhelmed that the band didn’t read music and didn’t want to listen to their demos as a guide. He ran a tight ship too, not welcoming the swapping of instruments the band occasionally conducted.
Nevertheless recording in the plush surroundings and being clued-up to ideas like splicing bits into mixes to extend things were good experience for the band members. Present Tense, the LP that eventually emerged in October 1979 and makes up the first part of disc one here, does capture Shoes well. All round it’s very strong, with a host of killer melodies and no-nonsense musicianship which hasn’t had all of the appealing rough edges smoothed out by studio trickery. Tomorrow Night, their standard-bearing first single, is nicely recut and Too Late powers elegantly out of the blocks. It’s difficult to see how either didn’t meet with some chart success (Too Late did just about nudge into the US Top 75), though the quick order they were released as singles probably didn’t help.
Chugging new wave nugget Hangin’ Around With You also helps to make for a strong start to the LP and later on the near-glam beat and quirky subject matter make I Don’t Miss You a treat. Even if Shoes didn’t make the move towards the skinny tie threads fashions, Cruel You balances a tough and punky sound to gorgeous harmonies excellently. One thing that Shoes were ahead of the pack on was shooting videos, which they did for Tomorrow Night and Too Late and a couple of album tracks. It was something that would stand them in good stead down the line.
The extras on this disc are drawn from the band’s extensive demos (much like disc 2 and 3 also), in effect presenting an early version of the Present Tense LP. These demo cuts show how far formed the tracks were before they even got on the plane to decamp to the Manor. Shoes were a band very much with their own idea how they should present themselves and their sound. They had a strong will to make sure things remained pretty much as they had imagined them, without trendy stylistic adornments – minor adjustments apart, these early takes are a little simplier but pretty near what was released on the LP. The demo of Three Times: See Me/Say It/Listen moves away from the album version with some odd country embellishments and Too Late gets an extra shot of riff-laden energy, but otherwise these are mainly just rougher versions that catch the band in their freewheeling element.
The Present Tense album had been a fairly costly enterprise, one that meant a longish stay in England and the cost of hiring of the studio etc. In the terms of bunce spent it was something the number 50 placing achieved in the US could not hope to recoup. The pressure was on Shoes as they approached recording their next platter and with fashions changing (the Knack’s run of glory was practically forgotten by then), the advantages they had coming into their Elektra debut were all but spent. It was a long while before Shoes presented their follow up, in fact a wait until the beginning of 1981 when Tongue Twister finally emerged.
The producer of Fleetwood Mac’s mega-selling Rumours Richard Dashut was engaged for the band and his modus operandi was to work tirelessly on small details. This was something alien to the band and could have robbed them of their essential energy, but on listening to it today thankfully this did not occur. Recording of Tongue Twister was concluded by September 1980, just the right time to catch the last knockings of the new wave. Unfortunately Elektra then proceeded to sit on the record for five months, by which time the music scene had changed immeasurably. Even in the UK, probably Shoes best hope of crossing over at this stage, was moving quickly towards synth-based pop and away from guitar-led new wave.
As these stylistic concerns don’t really apply now so much time has passed since release, we can clearly judge Tongue Twister for what it is. Yes there are a few concessions to the changing times, with electric keyboards being used here and there and on The Things You Do most extensively, but overall Shoes original vision remains intact. There’s some golden tunes on here, like the slow and careful psychedelia of Found A Girl and She Satisfies, the flipside of the light and pleasing Karen single, gives us a genuine pure pop high. Lead-off track and first single from the album Your Imagination successfully presents a new-sounding, bass-heavy Shoes for the 1980s. It’s a shame that the general public weren’t listening or buying it, because Tongue Twister is another fine selection of addictive and driving pop music.
Again the band demoed the album material extensively as to present Tongue Twister in early form, which makes up the extra tracks on disc two. I preferred the version of Burned Out Love here, it has just an extra shot of power and the simpler arrangements aid the songs on the whole. It’s probably my ears but I think I detected a very small bit of Holidays In the Sun on the demo take of When It Hits. Anyway it is good and the warmth of Girls Of Today for me trumps the released cut.
Four years into their seven year Elektra contract found Shoes staring into the commercial abyss. A plea for funds from the label to start work on their third outing for the imprint originally fell on deaf ears, showing how far their stock had fallen with the company. The band were virtually potless and with only a few live shows bringing anything in, they were desperate for a cash injection or even just some good news.
However a boost would come from an unexpected source. MTV started broadcasting in the summer of 1981 and to fill their format of music videos around the clock they regularly played the four videos Shoes had made in 1979 whilst promoting the Present Tense album – the Tomorrow Night and Too late single, plus album tracks Cruel You and In My Arms Again. Elektra bosses remained sceptical that this new TV channel would take off, but the exposure did mean that they approved that work could start on the next Shoes LP.
During demo recording they shot a video for In Her Shadow, a John Murphy song that had been considered for Tongue Twister. MTV had been nagging the band when they would make a new video and with the help of David Braga, who worked at a TV station, a quick shoot was completed. For some unknown reason the thought of a band doing something for no cost to promote a new album on their label made Elektra hopping mad. They demanded MTV pull the video and in effect they also pulled the plug on Shoes’ Elektra career.
At the time though the band proceeded with the recording of what was to become Boomerang (originally called Animation). They produced themselves on this record, which presented problems as the three songwriters each fought their own corner for their creations. With the associated power struggles and collaborations out of the window, the record was completed in an uncomfortable atmosphere. Even so, Boomerang is a solid record, with interesting songs that have subject matter which stepped away from Shoes’ usual examinations of personal relationships. For instance Mayday was a critique of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, The Tube mused on the television generation and Double Talk was actually a veiled reference to the worsening situation at Elektra rather than a tale of love betrayal.
Too Soon has a touch of Nick Lowe about it and Under The Gun’s big chorus and swinging beat also pleases. Though the album didn’t in the end have a single released from it, In Her Shadow, What Love Means or Mayday all would have been good choices. Elektra had lost interest by this point – shame on them because Boomerang was still full of appeal.
The demos on this disc are a bit different from the released takes, with The Summer Rain in this form sounding like the blueprint for the paisley underground. The In Her Shadow take here is full of fuzz, simple and very effective and on Tested Charms they sound like American cousins of the Young Marble Giants – a very cool combo indeed.
The rarities disc which concludes this collection has three takes of Jet Set, the Manor-recorded version of which nearly made the Present Tense album. I have to say I prefer the second demo take, which has some nice growling guitar lines. Ever Again and Take You Away were older songs dating from their time pre-Elektra and there’s a lovely acoustic Karen which shades the LP version. Final studio cut I Wanna Give It To You has synths incorporated into their sonic attack – maybe they would stood a chance with this sound in the post-new romantic world? We shall never know.
Finishing off things we have six songs from a rapturously received hometown gig at the Zion Ice Arena in May 1981. This set was briefly released by the band as the Shoes On Ice tape for fan club members, but was quickly nixed by the killjoys of Elektra. They’re pretty much a power pop Ramones here (who were quite power pop themselves – I’ll leave mentions of that genre here I think, before getting into too much trouble), piling through great songs from the first two Elektra LPs including a great version of Cruel You.
Shoes weren’t a punk band, but their individual approach and stubborn refusal to bow to fashions and trends was a lot closer to the “do it yourself, be yourself” mantra than most. The home demos on each disc show how far on they were prior to hitting the recording studios and the albums themselves stand up well, they still sound great. In addition, the rarities disc is a lot of fun and the live selection proves they had what it takes on stage to go down a storm.
The band saw through their vision with outside little interference and in course produced three quality records that truly stand the test of time. Elektra seemed to only really make an effort for Shoes on the first LP, after that they mainly bungled any chance for the band’s success throughout their time with the label. A shame, but it doesn’t make this set any less worthy of attention. Taking this together with the Black Vinyl Shoes box you have the complete early history of one of the great unheralded bands. Enjoy.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here